By Tim Shorrock | August 3, 2017
Originally published in Lobelog Foreign Policy.
From President Trump to Capitol Hill, there is only way short of war to stop North Korea’s from becoming a nuclear-armed ICBM State: Let China Do It. Even after Pyongyang proved last week that its long-range rocketry skills are improving with each test, the Washington consensus seems to be that Beijing is the only power capable of turning the situation around.
China “could easily solve this problem,” Trump pouted in a morning tweet on Saturday after North Korea’s second ICBM test in a month. Yet it does “NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk.” Nikki Haley, his UN ambassador, chimed in that “China is aware they must act.” Vice President Mike Pence added his voice during a trip to Estonia. “China has a unique ability to influence decisions by” North Korea, he said on Sunday.
This came after a week in which North Korea and its close ties to China dominated the talk in Congress and the think-tank circuit in Washington.
“The road to denuclearization [in North Korea] undoubtedly goes through Beijing,” declared Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), as he opened a July 25 hearing on North Korea before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A few days later, in response to Pyongyang’s latest ICBM test, Gardner introduced legislation to “punish” what he called the North’s “enablers.” “China is responsible for ninety percent of trade with North Korea and my legislation targets entities involved in these activities,” he said.
At the Senate hearing, Susan Thornton, the acting secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, outlined the recent actions taken by the administration against the Bank of Dandong and other Chinese entities for acting as a “conduit” for North Korean money laundering. “We recognize the continued importance of Beijing doing more to exert pressure on North Korea,” she told the panel.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party-aligned Center for a New America Security last Friday released a fresh report calling on the US to use the threat of sanctions on China as a way to force Beijing into taking a more aggressive posture towards Pyongyang.
“If China believes North Korea’s nuclear development will lead to US military action—which is not an outlandish idea—China may go along with greater economic pressure,” said Peter Harrell, a CNAS fellow who helped develop sanctions against Iran, Russia, and Syria as a State Department official during the Obama administration.
But will this “let China do it” mentality accomplish anything?
“Washington is preoccupied with getting Beijing to put more pressure on Pyongyang,” Leon V. Sigal, a former US diplomat who has met frequently with North Korean officials over the years, told the Senate hearing on Thursday. “We must not lose sight of the fact that it is North Korea that we need to persuade, not China.”
In response to questions from Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), Sigal said that policies of pressure and sanctions can only work “if nuclear diplomacy is soon resumed and the North’s security concerns are addressed” through direct US-North Korean talks. Sigal is the director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council.
James F. Person, a historian who has specialized in North Korea’s diplomacy with China and the former Soviet Union, similarly argues that pressuring China to lean on North Korea will backfire. “Pyongyang will perceive any effort to get them to denuclearize as another overly intrusive move and lacking respect for North Korean sovereignty,” he told a July 10 press briefing organized by the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a US government think tank in Washington.
“We can’t afford to outsource our policy to China because that’s asking North Korea to do what they most resent,” Person added. “Ultimately, we will have to talk to the North.” He and Jane Harman, the former California congresswoman who runs the Wilson Center, elaborated on this idea last fall in The Washington Post. “Only the United States—the supposed existential threat that justifies [North Korea’s] nuclear and ballistic missile programs—can fully address Pyongyang’s security concerns,” they wrote.
Now that Pyongyang has the capability to launch ICBMs that can travel great distances, Person added at the July forum, North Korea will continue to test to give it the best possible leverage when the door opens for talks with Washington. “They want to make sure when they get to the negotiating table that they’ve pushed their program as far as they can,” he said.
The idea of direct talks has also been promoted by several former high-ranking officials, such as William Perry, who negotiated with North Korea on its missile program as secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. On the eve of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Washington in June, Perry was one of several retired senior officials who signed a letter to Trump urging him to begin direct negotiations without any preconditions with the North.
Last week, in an interview with Senator Bernie Sanders, Perry explained his position. “North Korea is not a crazy nation,” he told Sanders. “They are reckless, ruthless, but they are not crazy. They are open to logic and reason. Their main objective is to sustain their regime. If we can find a way of dealing with them that they can see gives them an opportunity to stay in the regime, we can get results.”
Most analysts believe that direct negotiations would have to begin with the North offering to freeze its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for the US and South Korea scaling down their annual military exercises. At the Wilson briefing, New York Times reporter David Sanger suggested that the US has a “window of opportunity” to offer such a deal soon because the main US-ROK exercises take place in the spring. “Between now and next spring, we wouldn’t lose much” if the US temporarily halted the exercises, he said.
In an interview, Sigal cautioned that, for any deal to be accepted in Washington, a North Korean moratorium would have to go beyond the freeze of current programs as suggested by China and Russia. He said that would involve North Korea stopping its uranium enrichment and plutonium production as well as its nuclear and missile testing. That, in turn, would require the United States to pledge to end its “hostile policy,” as demanded for decades by North Korea.
“You’ve got to suspend the production of fissionable material too,” Sigal told me. He said the US would “have to pay for that, not in money terms but in terms of moving away from the hostile policy” that North Korea would like to end. “Some of that’s going to involve military exercises, some of that’s going to involve [lifting] sanctions, some of that’s going to involve starting the peace process. But that’s what’s got to be worked out. That’s the first stage agreement that may be possible.”
On Monday, China urged the US to open direct talks with Pyongyang. The US and North Korea “hold the primary responsibility to keep things moving, to start moving in the right direction, not China,” UN Ambassador Liu Jieyi declared, according to Al Jazeera. “No matter how capable China is, China’s efforts will not yield practical results because it depends on the two principal parties.”
Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based journalist who writes about US national security and foreign policy for many publications at home and abroad. He is the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing, and is a Korea Policy Instiute Advisor.